President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks during the opening ceremony for the 75th annual Cannes film festival
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Updated: May 18, 2022 12:33 PM EDT | Originally published: May 18, 2022 10:26 AM EDT

The opening ceremony of the Cannes Film Festival is generally, not to put too fine a point on it, a snooze. A highly polished actor or entertainer steps out to host. This year—the festival’s 75th edition—it was Virginie Efira, the Belgian-French actress who played a salacious, miracle-performing nun in Paul Verhoeven’s Benedetta. Watching the simulcast proceedings with the rest of the press from the festival’s Debussy theater—the sister theater to the the bigger, fancier venue, the Grand Lumiere, where the festival’s major film premieres take place, and where an A- to Z-list of actors and luminaries in evening dress had gathered for the night’s festivities—I didn’t even recognize her as Verhoeven’s naughty nun. Her columnar sequined YSL dress was elegant for sure. But was so stiff and composed it looked as if all the personality had been airbrushed out of her.

Both the opening and closing ceremonies of this festival are events draped in pageantry and formality; they move slowly even as the rest of the world speeds up, which makes them rather charming, if dull. The host introduces the jury (this year it’s helmed by French hangdog heartthrob Vincent Lindon), and special awards are doled out (this time around, Forest Whitaker seemed visibly moved as he held his honorary Palme d’Or). But the ceremony’s business-as-usual veneer cracked when Efira introduced a surprise guest, appearing from Kyiv by satellite, Ukrainian Prime Minister Volodymyr Zelensky.

Zelensky spoke, with somber conviction, about the role of cinema in world affairs, at one point quoting Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator—”The hate of men will pass, and dictators die, and the power they took from the people will return to the people”—and noting that “the most brutal dictators of the 20th century loved cinema.” And his appearance at an international, but also staunchly European, film festival held particular resonance: Europeans, more so than those in the U.S., have every reason to be wary of Russian aggression and harassment.

“On February 24, Russia began a war of huge proportion against Ukraine with the intention of going further into Europe,” Zelensky said. “Will cinema stay silent or will it talk about it? If there is a dictator, if there is a war for freedom, again, it all depends on our unity. Can cinema stay out of this unity? We need a new Chaplin who will prove that, in our time, cinema is not silent.”

President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks in a live link-up video during the opening ceremony for the 75th annual Cannes Film Festival (Andreas Rentz/Getty Images)
President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks in a live link-up video during the opening ceremony for the 75th annual Cannes Film Festival
Andreas Rentz/Getty Images

This isn’t, of course, the first time Zelensky has appeared virtually at an entertainment event. He popped up at the Grammy Awards, and as a former entertainer himself, he knows something about how to keep his country’s plight front and center in the public eye. His gift for messaging has rankled some: even people who support Ukraine and its fight have criticized Zelensky’s celebrity appearances, or at least the public’s worshipful response to him. And it didn’t take long for the “People are dying and there he is, showing up at Cannes” brigade—or bots—to start weighing in on social media.

Read More: Russian Creatives Are Fleeing the Country. For Actors, the Decision Is Not So Simple

But Zelensky’s serene yet resolute appearance at Cannes—decked out in his trademark, sober-looking olive-drab shirt, looking perhaps a little tired but nothing close to weary—brought a dash of humility to this assertively imperious festival. (When trade publication IndieWire asked Cannes chief Thierry Frémaux how the festival had landed Zelensky, he said, “We are Cannes.”) Zelensky’s roughly six-minute speech probably took no more time than your average world leader’s pee break. And in that six minutes, he reminded a group of people gathered for one of the world’s biggest cinema events that there really is something at stake here.

The filmmakers and entertainers at Cannes are certainly attuned to the Ukrainian crisis: the festival’s opening night film was Michel Hazanavicus’ zombie comedy Final Cut, originally titled Z. Hazanavicius changed the title when he was made aware that “Z” had become a symbol of Russian propaganda. But to see Efira on the stage in her tasteful, shimmering dress, focused on the words of a middle-aged former actor who is now holding his country together against all odds, represents a melding of the glamorous and the pragmatic that’s completely ridiculous—yet also kind of perfect for our weird age. Some people think politics and art should be kept hermetically separate; others can’t look at even the most facile work without forcing some political meaning on it. But in the context of lost lives, those arguments are a waste of time. Art thrives when people care, and to care means we’re truly alive. Why choose anything less than living?

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